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Alebrijes, Fantastical Beasts with Rainbow Faces


Pulse News Mexico photo/ Melissa T. Castro

By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS    

It’s often been said that one man’s nightmare is another man’s dream, but in the case of alebrijes, one man’s nightmare became his own dream-come-true path to success.

Back in the early 1930s, Pedro Linares, a poor Mixe paper maché artisan in the remote Oaxacan village of San Martín Tilcajete was in the throws of illness in what was most probably a bout with typhoid or a similar dysentery disease.

Delirious from fever, Linares slipped into a semi-comatose state, in which his imagination transported him to a mystical world of strange, terrifying creatures.

A weird menagerie of multi-legged lions with vicious claws projecting from their foreheads, giant roosters with horses’ heads and dayglow donkeys with butterfly wings inhabited Linares’ bazaar dream world, and as he tried to escape from this terrible nightmare, the frightening creatures his mind had created fled after him screaming in an unintelligible language.

When Linares awoke, he could still hear the eerie sounds of the imaginary beasts ringing in his ear, repeating over and over a freakish Spanish-sounding word that had no significance for the Mixe native: “alebrijes, alebrijes, alebrijes!”

Once he finally recovered from his illness, Linares decided to make papier-mâché models of the strange animals he had seen to show his family and friends what his gruesome dream world had been like.

Those “alebrijes,” as Linares coined them, happened to catch the attention of a gallery owner in Cuernavaca who was visiting the Oaxacan village in search of local handcrafts.

The gallery later commissioned Linares to produce additional alebrijes, and almost overnight, the artisan discovered a whole new career.

Using copal, a local resinous wood, as the base of their creatures, Linares’ entire family soon got into the act, and within a few years, alebrijes were being produced by Oaxacan craftsmen throughout the region.

Today, San Martín Tilcajete and the neighboring village of San Pedro Taviche are considered to be the most important producers of alebrijes, and these colorful fantastic creations have become the main source of revenues for the local populations.

Alebrijes come in a great variety of shapes and sizes, and are usually produced by entire families in Oaxaca, with the men doing the carving, and the women doing the intricate painting.

Pedro Linares died in 1992, one year after receiving Mexico’s National Award for Science and Art from then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Nevertheless, his three sons and grandchildren have followed in his path and are still producing alebrijes to this day, recreating their own artistic interpretations of their ancestor’s horrible nightmare world.

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